I Don’t Know What Comes Next
Jessamy Corob Cook discusses writing a book without a plan
There is no single right way to approach writing a novel. At Bath Spa, we were consistently encouraged to find and follow our own process. One week we had Jo Nadin showing us her meticulous and exquisitely in-depth planning methods; the next week we had David Almond and the glorious mess of his sketchbooks. I used to think I would never get to the end of a story without careful planning. To dive in, without any clue as to what would happen – that would be chaos, wouldn’t it? I looked with wide-eyed admiration at my classmates’ neatly typed chapter plans and colour-coded spreadsheets.
But the fact is, I’m not a spreadsheet person.
At every workshop and every tutorial I would have to admit, “I still have no idea where this story is going. But I’m still enjoying writing it.”
The encouragement of my tutors gave me the confidence to continue on this terrifying and exhilarating journey into the unknown.
So, what do you do when you don’t know what comes next? Here are some approaches that helped me, that might just help you.
The aforementioned glorious mess of David Almond’s sketchbooks was a huge inspiration to me. When I didn’t know what to write, I would find an empty page and splurge out images, shapes, colours and words. The results weren’t pretty, but that doesn’t matter. It was the process of switching off my rational brain and letting my creative brain take over that helped me discover the themes, images and characters that now make up the world of my story.
Sometimes your subconscious knows more about your story than you do, and it just needs to be listened to. Freewriting can help. I used freewriting in various ways to help me work through sticky bits in my story. Sometimes it was as simple as sitting down with a notebook and pen and writing anything that came into my head, whether or not it had anything to do with the story, just to get my thoughts flowing. Sometimes I’d begin with a question, some aspect of the story I was struggling with, and write around it, and sometimes an answer would emerge. Sometimes I’d write in first person, as one of my characters, or I’d write as a conversation between me and the character.
Page of Words
This is another one inspired by David Almond. In his wonderful book My Name is Mina, the narrator, Mina, fills a whole page full of joyful words. She suggests that you (the reader) also try this exercise, or alternatively try the sad version (a page full of sad words). I tried this exercise both as myself and as my characters. The simplicity of this exercise, and the focus on individual words rather than getting bogged down in sentences, can bring up all sorts of emotions and helped me forge a deeper connection with my characters.
Lists of Possibilities
When you don’t know what’s going to happen next, sometimes it helps to consider the options. For example, my protagonist, Beatrix, steals a rose. I knew this rose was magic, but I didn’t know how. So I made a list: 30 Things The Rose Might Do Next. I can look back now and see all the different directions my story might have taken if I’d chosen any of those other possibilities. And yes, 30 is a lot. That’s the point. You’re challenging yourself to think beyond the obvious, as well as giving yourself permission to include all the really stupid ideas.
Fairytales give us the essence of a story. They don’t mess about with description, subtext or scene-setting. So if you want to find the essence of your story, write it as if it were a fairytale (Once there was a girl who…). I found this particularly useful for working out my backstory. There’s also a sense of inevitability to fairytales – we know that the forbidden door will be opened, that the cruel king will be punished, that the impossible task will be completed. When you put things in fairytale terms, you may find that your innate storyteller sense of direction knows what needs to happen next. Perhaps this method worked particularly well for the sort of story I was writing (fantasy, with fairytale elements) but I believe you could use this for any style or genre of writing.
Sometimes you just have to sit down and bash it out. It might be rubbish. It might all be thrown away. It doesn’t matter. It’s more important to keep moving, even if you’re going in the wrong direction. Sometimes you just have to make yourself write the first word. Then the next. Then the next.
Know Your Craft
I didn’t plot my story, but I did learn what a plot was. I didn’t know what my inciting incident would be, or my midpoint, or my climax, but I knew that my story would have all these things. It’s worth reading the books that tell you how plans work, even if you aren’t going to make one. I don’t think I would have figured out my story if I hadn’t had a sense of what a story was supposed to look like. It’s like setting out without a map, but still having a North Star.
These are a few of the tools with which I’ve stocked my toolkit this past year. Like most writers (I suspect), my process is constantly evolving, and what worked this time may not work the next. But if any of these ideas looks exciting to you, feel free to steal them, adapt them or discard them as you please.
I leave you with the one piece of advice I consider absolutely non-negotiable: enjoy the journey.